Magazine / Genius or Tyrant? The Dual Narratives Surrounding Elon Musk

Genius or Tyrant? The Dual Narratives Surrounding Elon Musk

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Is he humanity’s savior? Or is he perpetrating the downfall of civil society? Elon Musk is one of the most controversial and powerful men on our planet. Whether you place him on a pedestal or spit on the ground he walks, there is no denying his leadership success. From Tesla, to Starlink, SpaceX and now Twitter / X, he is a disruptive technological and cultural innovator that has made his mark on the history of our species in more ways than one—and he’s only getting started.

There is nothing simple about Musk, who can be as easily painted a hero as a villain. Few people know this as well as acclaimed biographer Walter Isaacson, who spent two years shadowing Musk’s life with unprecedented access. Today marks the release of his new book, Elon Musk. Isaacson sat down with our Next Big Idea Club podcast host Rufus Griscom to discuss the many threads that weave the whole cloth of this historic figure. The full interview is available now on the Next Big Idea app. You can also tune in on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Because we’re all wondering, Where did this man come from? How did he become the richest man alive? Why is he so influential? Isaacson guides readers in understanding Musk’s meteoric rise to leadership prowess, but leaves it up to us to decide where his story deserves admiration, and where it bodes caution. Here are a few fundamental insights into Musk’s leadership development, as observed by Isaacson.

Bullied and battered beginnings led to owning the playground.

Walter Isaacson: When he was a kid, Elon Musk was scrawny and didn’t have great emotional intelligence, so he was beaten up by the bullies on his school yard, and pushed down the concrete steps and had his face smashed. But the scars from that were minor, in some ways, compared to the scars from his father. After he was bullied and beaten up and got out of the hospital, his father made him stand in front of him and berated him for more than an hour, calling him stupid, taking the side of the person who had beaten him up. All of that led to a lot of demons jangling around in Musk’s head. You still see those demons.

Rufus Griscom: He spent a week in the hospital, recovering from the incident where he was beaten up by these kids, thrown down the staircase. Ten years later, he was still getting reconstructive surgery on his nose. When he was 12 years old, he was sent to a wilderness survival camp where each child was given a small ration of food and water, and they were encouraged to fight over them, right? So, he’s a small awkward boy, and he’s beaten up by the bigger kids, his food is taken from him, and he walks out, he loses 10 pounds over the course of this survival camp. It’s another world.

Isaacson: But then, he goes back for the second time, a few years later, and he’s gotten bigger. He’s almost six feet, he’s learned a little judo, and he says, “I learned that if somebody’s trying to bully you, you just punch them really hard in the nose. And they may still beat you up, but you just punch them really hard in the nose and they may not try it again.” And you want to look at what he’s doing now, whether it’s on Twitter or other things, he still has that quality that comes from having gone to a survival camp and sometimes thinking, maybe I should just punch people as hard as possible in the nose.

Harnessing “demon mode” for productivity gains.

Isaacson: There’s not one Elon Musk. There’s a guy with multiple personalities, almost like Jekyll and Hyde, and he can switch instantly from being in giddy funny mode or being charming, to being in deep engineering mode where he focuses like a laser on something and does some amazing reasoning to figure out valves and factories and what will work and what won’t. There’s also a concentration mode where he processes things. And finally, there’s demon mode.

He’ll switch from mode to mode, almost instantly. One of the odd things is, when he goes into demon mode and starts tearing people apart or saying nasty things, then he’ll just brood silently for a while, and when he snaps out of it, he hardly remembers. I’ll say, why did you say that to Andy Krebs or Lucas Hughes? And why did you do this? And he’ll look at me almost blankly, as if it was just a phase he went through. When he snaps out of it, he’ll treat everybody normally again.

“How much do you harness those demons to become drives?”

So, it was an odd thing to watch. It, sometimes, was quite effective. I mean, he would order up surges, that’s what he called them, which is when he didn’t think people were working hard enough or weren’t all in or being hardcore or intense, he would just say, “Okay. In a hundred hours, we’re going to have to do this.” Or, “I want a hundred people on this launchpad for the next three days, getting the rocket stacked.” That would come out of some of his dark demon-driven personality, but it would actually be amazing to watch its effectiveness.

Most great people have demons in their heads, and have dark things that emanate from childhood. The question is, how much do you fall prey to those demons? And how much do you harness those demons to become drives? Musk has done both.

All work, no play.

Isaacson: When I started reporting this book, he had just become the richest person in the world. He had been Time magazine’s person of the year. Suddenly, he had turned Tesla around and they had sold about a million cars, and they were worth more than all other auto companies combined. He was the only person who was able to get astronauts from America into orbit, and then he’s the only person to be able to land the boosters and reuse them again pretty quickly.
So, he was riding real high. But as soon as I was following him around, he started buying Twitter stock. I said, “What’s the deal?” He said, “Well, I always got to put my chips back on the table. I don’t like resting on my success. A period of calm doesn’t suit me. I was made for a storm. I love the drama.”

Griscom: So in the early part of Elon’s life [when starting Zip2 with his brother, an internet play that’s a hybrid of a mapping system and a business listing system], right out of the gate, there was a complexity to his management and business approach. There’s this incredible intensity, right? He’s hardcore, as he likes to say. I think he and his brother, Kimbal, slept in their office for the first six months. He works fanatically at night. He rewrites the code of the other developers while they’re sleeping, as he puts it, “fixes their fucking stupid code”, which you write is, “Not a path to endearment.”

We see very early on this combination of fanatical intensity, interpersonal brusqueness, but also some goofy humor and play.

Isaacson: Yeah. One of his mantras is that it’s important to be all in. It’s important to be truly hardcore. And as you go through the narrative of the book, whether it’s SpaceX or Tesla or even Twitter, that notion of being relaxed and having a fun work-life balance, that’s not for him. He’s a believer in hardcore intensity.

Dreams that never die.

Griscom: After the PayPal coup, it really hurts his feelings that he was pushed out of PayPal. After expressing this, he says to you, “Of course, I would’ve turned PayPal into a trillion-dollar company.” Do you think that he would have turned PayPal into a trillion-dollar company if he’d remained CEO?

Isaacson: I think he wanted to make it a financial services company that did all your financial transactions, as well as a social network, and he wanted to call it, and that’s what he’s doing with Twitter. As I try to explain in the book, being driven by that vision of from 20, 25 years ago, that’s what’s driving him, in many ways, to totally disrupt Twitter.

I think he’s been driven by three missions ever since he was young, coming from reading Isaac Asimov and comic books, the first of which is making humans a multi-planetary species. To protect human consciousness, we’ve got to explore other planets. And to be adventurous, we have to explore. Secondly, we’ve got to get into an era of sustainable energy. So, he wants to bring us into the era of electric vehicles. And thirdly, he’s worried about the safety of artificial intelligence, that maybe our robots will someday turn on us.

“To be adventurous, we have to explore.”

Those are the great missions. They’re epic missions. And at times, I was sort of scoffing when he would talk about them, and I’d say, “Oh, these are just the fantasies of a person who has read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy once too often, or somebody just bloviating.” But after a while, I came to believe that there was, deep in Musk, something that really believed in these epic missions. It comes out of childhood, too, which is almost a superhero complex, but one that he has channeled quite effectively into making him the only person who’s gotten us into the era of electric vehicles efficiently. And the only company or entity, including NASA, that’s been able to get American astronauts from the U.S. up to the space station or into orbit.

So, we could scoff at him having these grand visions, but each and every day, at each and every meeting, there would be a moment when that vision would both play out and inspire the people around him.

Spirit of a risk-taker.

Isaacson: One of the things he took from his childhood is not only an ability to take risks, but an addiction to risks. He loves taking risks, and that’s been really the theme of his life. Everything he’s done is, let’s try it, let’s shoot it off.

In 2008, he had fired off three rockets and all had exploded. He was just taking incredible risks. But eventually, the fourth one happens, and NASA is unable to continue the space shuttle program or get astronauts into orbit. And so, it was a risk taking entrepreneur that has really helped, I would say, save the possibility of space exploration.

The rough tone of a disruptive leader.

Isaacson: You don’t have to be a jerk in order to be successful. But sometimes, being tough and rough is useful if you have to really disrupt things, because disruption and complacency are enemies, and you have to sometimes be rough in order to be a disruptor. I wish a lot of the disruptors could have been a lot kinder and gentler. I’m not sure that the generation of kind CEOs that you’ve mentioned are all disruptors. They are people doing a really good job running companies, and we need that as well. But they’re not Andy Grove disrupting the microchip industry, or Bezos inventing a new way of buying everything, or Steve Jobs disrupting the music industry, the personal computer industry, the phone industry.

So, I think I’m not going to make broad generalizations. I hope people are more like Jennifer Doudna and Benjamin Franklin in their personal lives. But I think it’s useful to read biographies and say, “To what extent does disruption require being forceful? And how forceful can I be before I cross the line?” And even the larger question of: Maybe you make the people in front of you have a less psychologically enjoyable workspace, but they end up doing great things. These are all very complex questions.

“You don’t have to be a jerk in order to be successful.”

Griscom: In general, I would observe that over the course of people’s lives, people tend to become more sensitive and thoughtful to people around them. Do you think that’s happening with Elon?

Isaacson: Yeah. There are times where he no longer gets quite as angry at meetings. He no longer chews people out quite as much. But there’s a fierce intensity he still has of getting things done quickly where he will just say, as we walk through the launchpad area in south Texas, the town of Boca Chica, and he’ll start saying, “We’ll never get humanity to Mars if we don’t hurry up.” So, I don’t think he’s lost his hardcore intensity.

What our nation can learn from Musk.

Isaacson: Watch Elon Musk as a father. He’s very, very devoted. I mean, obsessively, to all of his children. But he’s not hovering. When little X, his three-year-old, is running around at a solar installation site, and playing with the cables at midnight, and moving equipment is happening all around him, my instincts are like, “Oh, my God, let me go grab the kid and put him in a car seat or something.” But Musk, just as he was given a free-range childhood without hovering, he lets his children be risk-takers and adventuresome.

We used to be a nation that was a little bit more innovative. We were more adventuresome. Almost everybody in this country got over to this country, and they took a lot of risks to get here, whether it was on the Mayflower or across the Rio Grande. And it wasn’t just adventuresomeness, it was a willingness to take risks.

Nowadays, we have more referees in our society than we have risk-takers. We have more regulators than we have innovators. And that’s a pretty good thing. You don’t want people shooting off rockets without the FAA saying it’s approved, and putting on self-driving cars. We need lawyers to say, “You can’t do that.” We need regulators, and we need referees. However, if you get to be the type of place that can’t build high speed rail, or can’t build affordable housing in cities, or can’t deal with certain problems, you’ll end up with an aging infrastructure. The early 2000s when Musk started SpaceX, we were a country that, 50 years earlier, had put men on the moon, and yet now couldn’t even get people into orbit.

The whole purpose of the book is to show how an impulsive, impetuous, and often immature person gets things done. This is not to excuse or justify them being impulsive, impetuous, or rude, but it’s how this happened. And how can we, as a society, recalibrate a little bit? Maybe be willing to take a few more adventures to try to become space faring, maybe to take a few more risks?

A Musk with an impulse control button would not have infuriated people as much. He would not have been as controversial. But no, he would not have brought us into the era of electric vehicles, and he would not have made us a country that could get astronauts into orbit.

These interview excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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